It’s been many years since I’ve heard anyone remark to me,「日本語がお上手ですね」(“Nihongo ga ojōzu desu ne,” “Your Japanese is good”).

It took me a while to realize that such a remark was probably never really intended as a compliment in the first place. Rather, it should be taken as encouragement, meaning something akin to: “Wow, I actually understood what you just said. You’re making progress. Keep at it.”

What’s a better way to say it then?「日本語がぺらぺら 」 (“Nihongo ga pera-pera“) is a colloquial way to describe someone’s fluency. Even better would be to say「日本語が完璧です」(“Nihongo ga kanpeki desu,” “[his] Japanese is perfect”).

Back when I worked as an advertising copywriter, the ad-agency executive who took me around to clients’ offices used to introduce me to his customers by informing them, 「 彼は漢字が読める」 (“Kare wa kanji ga yomeru,” “He can read Chinese characters”). This, I suppose, was his way of letting them know I was not 尻が青い (shiri ga aoi, wet behind the ears).

But the most flattering bit of praise I ever received regarding my Japanese language ability was not particularly gratifying.

Back in the early 1980s, I’d been riding my just-purchased ナナ半オートバイ (nana-han ōtobai, 750 cc motorcycle) on the Shuto Expressway and promptly ran into a 交通取り締まり (kōtsū torishmari, crackdown on traffic offenders), better known as a ネズミ取り (nezumitori, speed trap). The cops said their radar had caught me doing スピード違反 (supīdo ihan, in excess of the posted speed limit).

Japan’s traffic laws are damn strict, and normally this offense results in 一ヶ月免許使用停止処分 (ikkagetsu menkyo shiyo teishi shobun, a one-month’s suspension of your driver’s license). But I was told that the license could be restored on the spot if I attended a refresher course in traffic safety.

“Bring someone to interpret for you,” a police official requested over the telephone, which struck me as strange, because our conversation had been entirely in Japanese.

Anyway, a few days later I went to the driving test center in Samezu, Shinagawa Ward, to sit through six hours of videos, lectures and two written tests. At the end we were administered a 選択問題試験 (sentaku mondai shiken, multiple-choice test) on driving regulations.

The tests were graded, but before the official at the counter began calling out people’s names to return their licenses, he chided the others in the room, saying, 「 本日、外国の方がすばらしい成績を取られました」 (“Honjitsu, gaikoku no kata ga subarashii seiseki wo toraremashita,” “Today the foreign person achieved an outstanding score”).

Being the only gaikoku no kata (foreign national) in the room, I half expected a round of applause, or perhaps at least a fellow penitent slapping my back and exclaiming 「ようやった!」(“Yō yatta,” “Well done!”) Upon which I might respond by saying, 「光栄です」(“Kōei desu,” “It’s an honor”) or even embellish my response by bowing deeply from the waist and saying, 「どうも、身に余る光栄でございます」 (“Dōmo, mi ni amaru kōei de gozaimasu,” “It is a great honor, indeed”).

More likely the others were thinking, 「うわべだけのお世辞だ」 (“Uwabe dake no oseji da,” “That’s a left-handed compliment”). Driving is not rocket science, and the questions were mostly simple common sense. And after all, the only prize was restoration of my license’s validity. So rather than indulging in 手前味噌 (temae miso, self-flattery), I realized that my high score on the test was hardly a noteworthy achievement.

In the nearly 20 years I spent working at Japanese companies, I rarely heard a supervisor or boss praise a subordinate for a job well done, at least in front of his peers.

If someone is lucky, the boss might nod and tell him or her,「ああ、これで十分です。」(“Ah, kore de jībun desu,” “This is satisfactory”).

Actually, I’ve always found giving and receiving compliments in Japanese to be one of the trickiest aspects of the language. For that reason I am reluctant to engage in お世辞 (oseji, flattery) for fear my words might be misinterpreted as 胡麻スリ (gomasuri, literally “grinding sesame,” but meaning to be a toady or sycophant). Perhaps it is better not to be praised at all than ほめ殺される (homegorosareru, to be damned with faint praise).

My female supervisor at work used to remind me not to 尊大に構える (sondai ni kamaeru, act self-importantly), using an old saying that goes「能ある鷹は爪を隠す」 (“Nō aru taka wa tsume wo kakusu,” “The skilled hawk does not bare its talons,” i.e., a talented person knows to be modest).

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